Fall 2011 Convocation Speech

"A Story for Sonoma State's Second Fifty Years"
Ben Ford
Chair of the Faculty

Fall 2011 Speakers
August 22, 2011

Ruben Armiñana
President

Andrew Rogerson
Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs

Ben Ford
Chair of the Faculty

Alex Boyar
Associated Students President

Dolores Bainter
Staff Representative to the Academic Senate

Ben Ford

Good morning all!  Welcome to the first semester of Sonoma State’s second fifty years!

Life While-You-Wait
~ Wisława Szymborska (1996 Nobel Prize in Literature)

Life While-You-Wait.
Performance without rehearsal.
Body without alterations.
Head without premeditation.

I know nothing of the role I play.
I only know it’s mine. I can’t exchange it.

I have to guess on the spot
just what this play’s all about.

Ill-prepared for the privilege of living,
I can barely keep up with the pace that the action demands.
I improvise, although I loathe improvisation.
I trip at every step over my own ignorance.
I can’t conceal my hayseed manners.
My instincts are for hammy histrionics.
Stage fright makes excuses for me, which humiliate me more.
Extenuating circumstances strike me as cruel.

Words and impulses you can’t take back,
stars you’ll never get counted,
your character like a raincoat you button on the run -
the pitiful results of all this unexpectedness.

If I could just rehearse one Wednesday in advance,
or repeat a single Thursday that has passed!
But here comes Friday with a script I haven’t seen.
Is it fair, I ask
(my voice a little hoarse,
since I couldn’t even clear my throat offstage).

You’d be wrong to think that it’s just a slapdash quiz
taken in makeshift accommodations. Oh no.
I’m standing on the set and I see how strong it is.
The props are surprisingly precise.
The machine rotating the stage has been around even longer.
The farthest galaxies have been turned on.
Oh no, there’s no question, this must be the premiere.
And whatever I do
will become forever what I’ve done.

(Poems New and Collected 1957-1997, trans. S. Baranczak and C. Cavanagh)

I Love my job because of all that unexpectedness!  I’m always challenged by new students, new colleagues, new mathematics, new ideas about teaching, and my own knowledge that I could do better.  Complacency is impossible - our disciplines, our students, and our world and its needs are changing constantly.  I am always challenged, always learning new things, and usually feel like I’m getting better at what I do.

I love my job because I get to do this work with great people.  My colleagues in my department and across SSU – faculty and staff – work with our students to create a great learning community.  We are mostly on the same page about what our job is, and work together well. 

And I love my job because it matters.  We do such important work here. I’m often reminded what a powerful impact SSU has on people’s lives when I run into alumni.  Of course, it’s personally very gratifying to run into my own former students - and I see a lot in my work with Sonoma County K-12 schools - but I admit that I can’t know whether I’m getting the real story when they praise me or my department, because they know me.  No, it’s when I run into graduates whom I don’t know - when they hear that I’m connected with Sonoma State, they almost always speak highly of their time here.  Usually, they will mention one or two faculty members who were important to them.  I hope you all know what a huge positive impact it’s possible to have in students’ lives here!

While I love “all this unexpectedness” in my daily work, there is of course lots of unexpectedness that’s not so welcome and which makes my job harder in not-so-good ways.  Massive swings in budgets and enrollment priorities (do we need more students this week or fewer?), to say nothing of budgets not known until halfway through the year, or mid-year budget cuts after spending decisions have been made - they all make it harder to give students what they need and to serve our community most effectively. They make much of our planning feel impossible or futile.

How to deal with this shifting landscape?  At my best as a teacher, I respond to where my students are in relation to the ideas we’re studying on a minute-to-minute basis, grounded in a vision of what I want them to be moving towards.  It doesn’t always work out this way – sometimes I get too stuck on my prior vision of what would happen – but those student “ahas” I live for don’t happen if I don’t have a clear vision and I’m not committed to meeting students where they are.

For me, there’s an analogy with how we work as a University.  A detailed roadmap of how to get somewhere leads to frustration when projected circumstances (like the fabled “growth money”) don’t come to pass.  We certainly have to plan, but all future scenarios are “what-if” possibilities.  Often, we have to respond to changes much more quickly than we would like – we have to improvise. 

Whether I’m planning far ahead or improvising, I need to have a vision for where I’m headed or what my guiding principles are. Planning without a vision is just a waste of time; improvising without a vision is called floundering, and it’s floundering, not the improvising of the poem, that I truly loathe.

We are engaged in profoundly important work together – all of us: students, faculty, staff, and administrators.  I want to explain why I think we have a unique place in California higher education, and why it is so important.

Before that, though, we’ll do something a little different. 

I’d like you to take about a minute and tell a neighbor your one-or-two-sentence explanation of what kind of place Sonoma State is, the story that you share with friends from far away who haven’t heard of it before.  You’re talking with someone who knows about colleges and universities – so you’re trying to explain SSU’s particular identity.

Thank you – we’ll get back to those stories in a few minutes.

In a recent New Yorker article, Louis Menand nicely outlined three purposes that this country embraces for higher education.  Unsurprisingly, some of them are mutually exclusive and yet held simultaneously by many.

Mission one, explicitly embraced by most elite colleges until recently, is a sorting mission:  colleges are supposed to sort people by intelligence and social background and ability so employers can tell that a potential employee “has what it takes.”  In this model, the particular content of the curriculum is not nearly as important as being certain that bars are set sufficiently high to perform the sorting function:  “Education is about selection, not inclusion.”  This vision of our purpose is objectionable in so many ways – morally, intellectually, philosophically – but it still is central to the way many people understand higher education, and its remnants are very present in many of our practices.

The second vision of higher education is one of personal and intellectual growth.  This model of higher education includes both “learning a shared intellectual history to fit in with society” and “learning to think critically and independently to be able to challenge the status quo;” the two are not mutually exclusive, though of course the choice to emphasize one or the other makes a big difference.  In this model, the intellectual, moral, and philosophical content of a student’s education really matter.  I think of this one as the “educated citizen” model.

A third purpose for higher education is preparation for a particular job: professional education.  It is this box that the California State University now largely occupies in the public mind, and the CSU emphasizes its important contribution with (very true) publicity about the CSU as the engine of the state’s economy, graduating large percentages of most of the state’s professionals, etc.

Elite private colleges have historically embraced the first two missions (sorting and educated citizen), with the balance shifting towards “educated citizen” in recent years, at least rhetorically.  They have made huge efforts at moving to a “meritocracy” from the situation through the early 1900s, when parentage and private prep schools were what mattered most.  The SAT was created to establish a “level playing field.”

But the elite colleges are still remarkably populated by affluent students.  In 2010, two-thirds of new freshmen at selective colleges came from the top income quartile.  For all their efforts at increasing diversity (successful, by many measures), such colleges largely preserve the economic status quo.  We all know lots of reasons for this – access to quality K-12 education, questions about what the SAT really measures, etc. 

But a still bigger factor is that even those lower-income students who do well in high school and on standardized tests don’t go to 4-year colleges in nearly the same proportion as higher-income students.  Why do you suppose that is?

There are certainly many reasons, but I will mention two that we can address here:  First is creating an education that meets students where they are, and provides the supports that they need to succeed – supports that might be different for different students.  “Treat everyone the same” can easily be cover for providing an educational environment that privileges members of some cultures or economic backgrounds over others.  Second, lower-income students are twice as likely as their more affluent peers to list “job skills” as an important outcome of higher education (BPS, US Department of Education, 1996-2001).  A college that ignores the professional mission will not draw an adequately broad cross-section of high school graduates. 

So why do I say we have a unique role to play, different perhaps than that of our sister CSU campuses?  The liberal arts and sciences, broadly-based, “educated citizen” college experience, at its best, develops abilities that leaders in all fields need, and business and civic leaders say they need in their hires:  the ability to process, evaluate, and incorporate lots of information from disparate sources; the ability to make connections across disciplines; the ability to critically evaluate different possible courses of action; the ability to put oneself in another’s shoes; the “skill and courage it requires to raise a dissenting voice” (Martha Nussbaum, Not for Profit).  Graduates with these abilities have huge advantages in taking on leadership roles.

But are these the abilities that employment recruiters typically look for?  They are certainly not the skills that students perceive will get them jobs.  Entry-level job applications and interviews are typically much more focused on particular technical skills. 

So if we want to fulfill our social justice mission, our students must know that they have paths to graduation that make them ready to step into professional jobs, and they must be prepared to assume leadership roles in their professions and the world as their careers develop.  The liberal arts and sciences mission and the professional education mission are not at all in competition, despite the nature of our discourse at times.

What do I mean by our social justice mission?  Public higher education is not, in my view, solely about providing a publicly-subsidized college experience for those who could just as well afford a private institution, nor just about providing access to entry-level professional jobs to students who would otherwise not have that access.  If we focus only on preparation for entry-level professional jobs, then we simply play the flip side of perpetuating the worker vs leader/decision maker status quo.

Rather, I think our mission is to bring everyone’s fullest potential and best ideas and talents to addressing the problems of the world.  The world faces incredible challenges right now and for the foreseeable future – economic, environmental, social – and our job is to get as many perspectives and ideas as possible represented in meeting those challenges.

Today, as we enter the second fifty years of Sonoma State University, I believe we have a great opportunity to take advantage of what the first 50 have produced to create a really vibrant story of our place in the changing world.  With the completion of the Green Music Center and the arrival of Provost Rogerson, together with the significant moment of our half-century mark, we’d be foolish not to seize the possibilities.

Nic Marks pointed out in a TED Talk last year that Martin Luther King, Jr. “did not say ‘I have a nightmare’ when he inspired the civil rights movement.”  For us to fulfill our mission, we need to tell a compelling story to our community, our applicants, our students, and ourselves about what that mission is and how we accomplish it.  And because a University’s story is centered around its academic identity, it is those of us who design and implement the curriculum who must lead the writing of this story.

To my faculty colleagues now, I believe our greatest opportunity as a faculty body is to develop a shared and coherent academic story for Sonoma State, and then work to build systems that move that vision forward.  Such a shared vision would lend structure to our reactions to circumstance, and pull us forward when we start to flounder.  If we can powerfully articulate the basis of a public liberal arts and sciences professional education, it will help us make decisions, help students know what they’re committing to by coming here, and help us fill our leadership role in the Sonoma County community more effectively.

As I visited colleges with my son a year ago, I was struck by how powerful a force for coherence was a shared story.  The places I’ve been that really had a powerful sense of purpose that pervaded the campus all had a one-liner that spoke meaningfully and clearly of some central tenet of a shared vision. 

I hesitate to mention any specifically, but I will mention one out-there example from another Council of Public Liberal Arts Colleges school, founded in the same decade as Sonoma State.  This is clearly not the center of our story, but think about how much this says about the educational philosophy of the college, how it could inform curriculum and resource discussions, and how it would help potential students know what they’re getting in for:  In Latin, Omnia Extares.  Translated (anyone know?): Let it all hang out.  Like I said, it’s not our story, but finding ours would help us in similar ways.

There are amazing things happening at Sonoma State, on campus and beyond.  We saw many at the Spring retreat last year focused on community engagement; I learn of many through the Sustainability Work Group; there are many highlighted on the Diversity Mapping Project on display in the Library.  But most of us, let alone folks outside of SSU, don’t know about them because they’re not part of a coherent narrative about what we do.

So I’m hoping to start a conversation with you.  It’s a daunting thing to ask of faculty, but I hope you’ll find a way to keep a piece of your mind and some of your hallway conversations on this big question, in the midst of the busy semester.  I want us to find out what the job is that we all believe we’re engaged in, and see if we can’t turn that into a story that can help us do that job.

Back to those stories.  Earlier I asked you to share with a neighbor your current story of SSU.  I’d like you to take another minute and share the story you would like to tell about SSU, if only it were true.

Thank you.  Those are what I want to collect and help us build into a shared story.  I’ve come up with a few ways to start doing this, and hope you’ll join me and let me know of others. 

  • Every second and fourth Wednesday (beginning September 14), Provost Rogerson and I will be having lunch in the new Faculty Center in the Library with any faculty who care to join us.  President Armiñana will be able to join us about once a month.
  • I will be requesting a bit of time to visit with many of your departments (not sure if I can make it to all!)
  • I am asking the Senate standing committees for time at their first or second meeting – hopefully before their agendas fill up – for time to talk about their roles in such a discussion.
  • I will be working with Associated Students leaders to figure out how to include students in this discussion.

I’ve been heavily involved in several startup ventures (charter schools and a cohousing community).  While extremely challenging, these efforts had a big advantage of the passion of those working at their center.  I challenge us to treat this new half-century for Sonoma State as our own startup effort – realizing that we have our own huge advantages over a real startup in the rich legacy of the first fifty years, as reflected in all the outstanding programs and projects already here.  I truly believe we’re at a time of opportunity here for answering big questions about what really matters for Sonoma State University.

I’ll leave you with a quote from Margaret Wheatley:

“…when we begin listening to each other, and when we talk about things that matter to us, the world begins to change….  Listening and talking to one another heals our divisions and makes us brave again.”  (Margaret Wheatley, Turning to One Another)

Thank you and have a wonderful Fall semester!

(References available on request)